MONO: Rays of Darkness and The Last Dawn

Just when you start to wonder what one of your favourite bands is up to, their next offerings turn up like buses: long awaited, and arriving two at once.

It’s a real challenge for music artists who work the treadmill of recording and touring to keep their output fresh and varied, especially when their line-up remains unchanged throughout their career. MONO have apparently been grappling with that issue, and although they’ve broadened their horizons by contributing to a TV mini-series and collaborating with a couple of indie filmmakers since their last studio effort, the move to release not one but two albums at the same time is I think quite a turning-point.

It begs the question of which one follows which. Personally, I prefer to play the thematically darker Rays of Darkness before The Last Dawn because it gives a sensation of going through a dark place towards a more hopeful one, but doing the opposite is an equally valid way to approach it, and I believe the band themselves don’t mind if the songs are experienced either way.

My own approach then takes me first to Recoil, Ignite, a storming track that takes their typical slow build-up to a crushing crescendo. Although this is familiar territory, I daresay it’s their best interpretation of that type of song apart from Yearning (which is saying something coming from me, that being my favourite track of my favourite album of theirs). There’s a short video to accompany it too, which was directed by Studio 4°C animator Kōji Morimoto. He’s been involved in a lot of productions that I’ve enjoyed over the years and whose style I really respect; the only downside is the video itself is just sixteen seconds long!

Surrender is a bit of an odd one: a trumpet part offers some welcome variety on an album that was deliberately arranged to not feature their now-trademark orchestral parts. It’s not particularly loud, dark or dramatic; it’s something of a segue between the tracks that precede and follow it, but little more than that.

The Hand that Holds the Truth is another departure for the band, although this isn’t apparent until the finale when the brooding, intertwining guitars and percussion burst into life as Tetsu Fukagawa lends his furious vocal part to send it on its way. Is it my favourite track of these two albums? No. Will the presence of lyrics – and hardcore screamo ones at that – sit well with some of MONO’s long-term fans? Probably not. Am I glad they recorded it this way? Perhaps surprisingly, yes.

The important thing is, it’s something new and unexpected, and bringing in a comrade of the J-indie scene for the ride hints at some interesting cross-pollination. Whether this will get MONO fans listening to Envy and vice-versa I don’t know, but I hope it does. Along with the bizarre noise section that makes up the closing track The Last Rays, the end result is a soundscape that’s only partially familiar alongside their earlier material.

While Rays of Darkness owes more to the band’s noise rock roots, The Last Dawn is probably closer in style to their more recent output but again, the orchestral aspect is reined in to just a string quartet. The Land Between Tides/Glory starts off sombre but starts the rise towards the light; Kanata, their first single and one that formed part of the soundtrack to the aforementioned TV show Kanata no Ko nevertheless fits in well here with its restful atmospherics and gentle lines of tinkling piano.

Cyclone highlights the relative restraint of this record, with its title conjuring images of violent forces of nature but in actuality it keeps those violent undercurrents under wraps and bubbling under the surface.

Elysian Castles provides something of a role reversal in which the piano takes the lead and then the guitars and drums follow. This is where the ‘cinematic’ vibe comes in again, reminding us that this is a band who now sit just as comfortably in the category of soundtrack scores as on the rock club circuit.

Another highlight is Where We Begin, which was used along with a couple of older tracks as BGM for the video diary of mountaineer Nobukazu Kuriki, and no wonder. If I’d overcome great personal adversity as he had, I’d want something that sounds like this to mark the moment of accomplishment as I blinked back the Manly Tears. Congrats to Mr Kuriki by the way.

Volume-wise it’s not really possible to top that, so the conclusion to the record is a gentle come-down that shows MONO at their most gentle and serene. They’re now experienced enough to be masters of dynamics: dig in and create a big, cinematic and sometimes frightening wall of sound when the mood takes them, or calm down and lay on some gentler melodies when appropriate.

After the lush expansive epics found on Hymn to the Immortal Wind and For My Parents it begged the question of how much ‘bigger’ the songs could get, and where to take things from there. I was worried that they’d reached a plateau or dead end: glib comparisons like “Joe Hisaishi in a hurricane” or “the sound of your heart being broken and then mended again” are only half the story: music’s power is lessened when it becomes stale and predictable.

Here, MONO have solved the dilemma by releasing two contrasting works simultaneously, allowing them to look ahead and try out new ideas in a way that will be easy to recreate live, while still paying homage to their influences…which is no mean feat in itself, being a variety of classics and experimentalists from Morricone and Beethoven to Loren Connors and William Basinski.

Between the two, The Last Dawn probably stands alone more strongly due to its more melodic nature making it more accessible. Even so, I’m still glad that they revisited the grittier chaos of their early work and threw in some surprises during Rays of Darkness to shake things up and heighten the contrast between the soul-crushing lows and life-affirming highs. Individually, these two records are interesting and beautiful in turns, but taken together they promise a tantalising new chapter.

Both albums are available from Temporary Residence (USA and Canada), Pelagic Records (Europe) and Magniph (Japan)